Matilda the Musical: “maggots” take centre stage

A brilliant young cast are key to the success of Matilda The Musical, which is coming to Edinburgh Playhouse next month, writes Kelly Apter

The Royal Shakespeare Company's Matilda The Musical PIC: Manuel Harlan

Most parents would be thrilled to have her as a daughter, but to Mr and Mrs Wormwood, Matilda is no more than a “jumped-up little jerk” who should be “against the law.” In the real world such words would have most of us reaching for the phone to call social services, yet in Matilda The Musical, night after night, audiences delight in this gross display of bad parenting. This is for two main reasons: one, Dennis Kelly’s script and Tim Minchin’s lyrics, both of which are razor sharp, and two: the girls taking it in turns to play the Wormwood’s fiercely intelligent offspring, who make it crystal clear she can take all they throw at her, and more.

“She’s always the grown-up in the room,” says 10-year-old Sophie Woolhouse, one of the young performers playing the role of Matilda on the current tour. “She’s a very inquisitive person and it’s amazing to play her.”

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Inspired by Roald Dahl’s 1988 novel, Matilda was first staged by the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford Upon Avon in 2010, before transferring to the West End. Nine years, a Broadway run and 90 awards later (including seven Oliviers and four Tonys), the show is finally making its way around the UK, spending four weeks in Edinburgh.

Like any great musical, Matilda relies on that perfect alchemy of script, music, choreography and performances all coming together. Songs such as the wonderfully mischievous Naughty, the poignantly hopeful When I Grow Up and the anthemic Revolting Children are staged and sung with such brilliance, it can bring tears to the eyes. Meanwhile Rob Howell’s ingenious set and costume design captures the anarchic spirit of Dahl, and weaves perfectly into Kelly and Minchin’s clever words.

But the fact that so much of the show’s success sits on the slight shoulders of a young child each night makes it all the more incredible. Woolhouse says that playing Matilda is amazing – well, so is watching her.

So demanding is the role that Woolhouse is one of four actors performing it in Edinburgh. Some will be joining the show for the first time while others, like 12-year-old Freya Scott, have been playing her for a while and can pass on some tips.

“Matilda is such a strong-minded girl who’s not afraid to stand up for what is right,” says Scott, “and playing her is a dream come true. I always have butterflies and feel nervous before a show, but I channel that into making my performance the best it can be. And as soon as the curtain goes up and I hear the audience, all my nerves turn into excitement and I can’t wait to get on stage.”

Matilda is one of nine young characters in the show, played by three rotating groups of children, to ensure nobody is on stage too often or on tour too long. One thing that unites them all, on-stage at least, is their shared hatred of headmistress Miss Trunchbull. Easily one of the best loved, and loathed, characters in musical theatre, “The Trunchbull” is always played by a man – in this case, Elliot Harper.

“It was quite daunting in the beginning, because she’s become this huge, iconic character,” he says. “And especially as I’m a man playing a woman, it’s a massive challenge and there are so many different things to think about. But it’s always more fun to play darker characters because they tend to have more of a backstory that explains why they’ve ended up that way.”

Along with the rest of the adult cast, Harper has been trying to show support and encouragement to the youngsters he’s shared a rehearsal room with for the past ten weeks. In sharp contrast to his child-hating character, Harper has nothing but admiration for his pint-sized co-performers.

“You’re so in awe of them that you can’t help but support them,” he says. “And physically, they’re so tiny. As an adult, you’re so aware of what you had to go through to get to where you are, in terms of the level of performance that’s required of you – and exactly the same thing is expected of a 10-year-old, so we can all empathise with that tenfold.

“We’ve all been very supportive of each other in the rehearsal room, and acted as an audience for each other. The children are all supervised to the hilt, as they should be, so we don’t spend a lot of time with them – but one of the new Matildas was shadowing another girl backstage last night, and wandering around just getting used to what it will feel like. So I was talking to her, sharing some experiences and offering advice.”

Harper’s kindness and warmth melts away as soon as he steps onto the stage, however. During one particularly memorable scene, he climbs onto a desk and looms large over Matilda. Already a formidable figure due to the body suit worn beneath his costume, Harper as Trunchbull cuts a menacing figure.

“For it to be convincing, you have to commit to it one hundred per cent,” says Harper. “But seconds after I’ve screamed my head off at them, I see the Matildas walking off stage with not a bother on them, so I know it doesn’t affect them.

“It’s the best way to tell the story, because the crueller Trunchbull and her parents are to her, the more triumphant Matilda becomes at the end.”

As for the young girls standing beneath that larger than life figure, being criticised and bellowed at, they take it all in their stride.

“Sometimes I feel a bit scared,” says Scott. “But then I remember that underneath all that make-up is a lovely man. It’s really good fun performing those scenes – and I don’t mind being called a maggot!

“All the adults are really supportive and tell us how well we’re doing – and they’re always waiting for you when you come off stage to give you a high five.”

Matilda The Musical is at the Edinburgh Playhouse from 2-27 April,